Birthing

Critic Walter Benjamin claimed that Kafka's stories only appeared to be allegories. Actually, their significance could never be fully fathomed, never easily explained—or explained away—with a simple correspondence to events in our world. The plurality of meanings in Kafka's stories keeps growing as we question them and as they question themselves. Their endless self-interrogation, in fact, is the process by which meaning's created. They are parables for what is possible. In this sense, The Sewers, the new play produced by Banana Bag & Bodice as part of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater's Incubator series, has a truly Kafkaesque feel to it. One may walk away from the theater a bit confused about what happened or what it might mean, but one relishes this confusion, assured that director Mallory Catlett knew exactly what she was up to.

The Sewers is the most breathtaking and beautifully original play I've seen Off-Off-Broadway this year. Rarely is work this challenging and innovative also so sumptuously entertaining.

Two women (Jessica Jelliffe and Heather Peroni), possibly sisters, form a love triangle with a megalomaniacal playwright and director (played with spectacular force by the actual playwright, Jason Craig). He has banished children from the imaginary village they inhabit, which is all that is left of the world. Both women seem to be androids, as hinted by the electrical cord that unfurls from between their legs. In fact, the only character who doesn't seem like an android is the unspeaking mechanic (Rod Hipskind) who scurries about the bleak room attending them.

When the playwright impregnates both women, a crisis arises. No children can exist in this world, but a double birth seems inevitable. Even after seeing the play and reading the script, though, I must admit I'm not sure what happens during the climactic scene in which the women give birth, but it is an astonishing theatrical moment.

My initial thought was that the women gave birth to the playwright, and the fate of this imaginary world doubled back on itself, as if in an eternal recurrence shaped like a Möbius strip. Perhaps, though, the playwright had been delivered from the womb of his own dark imagination. Or, perhaps, the playwright destroyed the children in a ghastly abortion. Maybe the children remain stillborn, or perhaps they swim like luminescent sea creatures trapped inside their mothers forever. The ambiguity is rich and tantalizing, and opens the play to countless new levels of interpretation.

The Sewers is self-conscious in the way of much postmodern meta-fiction, yet uses its self-consciousness to be genuinely funny rather than glibly ironic. At one point, for example, one of the women interrupts the other's monologue to ask, "What's the metaphor?"

The play is rife with metaphors, but it never digresses for the sake of making them. The metaphors, rather, are ambivalent puzzles that occur in the natural course of the story, the most wondrous metaphor being the set.

The entire stage appears to hover a few feet off the ground. Above, a corrugated tin roof frames a small room that's wallpapered with newsprint and refuse. Fluorescent lights flicker, a clothesline creaks on a pulley system off to one side, slop from a bedpan drips down a subway grate in the floor, cubbyholes pock-mark the walls, and hidden doors reveal a mirror-lined crawl space behind the back walls. The whole ambience conjures an institutionalized Third World prison or a postapocalyptic, postindustrial fallout shelter.

Oddly, the set is both claustrophobic and labyrinthine—it makes you feel that you are floating, yet enclosed; trapped, yet wandering in an endless maze with wormholes and secret passageways. Like the Pantheon, there's a hole in the center of the roof in which, at times, light floods down as if from heaven, giving the actors under it an otherworldly aura. The actors sometimes lean out from the stage to balance directly over the audience, which creates a vertiginous sense of awe. Thus, the setting, drab and cruddy as it is, begins to take on an aspect of the supernatural.

Kudos to set designer Peter Ksander for creating a space so wholly self-contained, so believable in its logic, that it floats in the mind afterward as an eerie alternate universe. Lighting designer Miranda Hardy also deserves generous credit for her haunting evocation of both the divine and scatological. One especially mind-blowing image was sonogram-like light sources attached to the women's bellies that only became visible in the dark.

My favorite scene, which epitomizes the inventiveness of the whole production, is when the playwright takes an exacto knife to rip a hole in the wall. A mysterious stream of greenish light pours in as if a vortex gave birth to the universe just outside the paper-thin walls of the set. The playwright then pulls a microphone out of the void to sing a loony song.

If only all plays could be as pregnant with meanings.

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